(Bloomberg) -- Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Jim Risch said Thursday the Senate should pause plans to sanction Turkey for its latest invasion of Syria if President Recep Tayyip Erdogan eliminates the Russian S-400 missile defense system from his arsenal.
“We think that there’s going to be movement relatively soon on the S-400s,” the Idaho Republican said in an interview the day after meeting with Erdogan at the White House. As long as there is positive movement, Risch said, “we ought to sit tight, because I think we’re probably going to want to evaluate our position somewhat if indeed we get the S-400s resolved.”
South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a close Trump ally who has pushed the president to take a tougher stance on foreign policy, said Turkey has “weeks, not months” to drop the S-400 program and come to an agreement to end hostilities with the Kurds in northern Syria. If not, “Congress will act,” Graham said.
By law, the Trump administration must sanction Turkey for purchasing the Russian missile-defense system, but the Treasury Department has not yet complied. There are several additional proposals in the House and Senate for extra sanctions as punishment for Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria last month. Risch and Graham have both introduced separate bipartisan sanctions bills.
Risch said he sees the S-400 issue as separate from concerns for the Kurds, an ethnic minority that partnered with the U.S. in the fight against the Islamic State. Risch said he wants to keep Turkey as an ally.
“When you’re going forward, instead of smacking the guy in the nose you need to try to keep moving forward as best you can,” Risch said.
There was bipartisan outrage over Turkey’s attacks on Kurdish-held parts of Syria after President Donald Trump announced a withdrawal of U.S. troops from the region. That prompted the series of proposals to sanction Turkey’s leaders, military and financial institutions.
Graham said the Senate should take up the sanctions bill that already passed the House of Representatives if Turkey doesn’t reverse its behavior.
Some of Trump’s fellow Republicans expressed uneasiness over Wednesday’s meeting with Erdogan, questioning whether a leader who attacked the Kurds, a U.S. ally, should be rewarded with a White House meeting. That visit included a tense session with several GOP senators, such as Graham and Risch, who have been leading critics of Turkey’s actions.
Risch said senators pressed Erdogan directly on what has been the “painful” recent history of the U.S.-Turkey alliance.
Senator Joni Ernst, a Republican from Iowa who was also in the meeting, said there was “a lot of disagreement among the senators and President Erdogan on the S-400 and the Kurds.”
She said regardless of the additional sanctions proposals in response to the Syria invasion, if Turkey continues with the Russian missile system, the U.S. will have no choice put to impose the penalties under the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.
“We have to follow the law,” Ernst said. “We are giving Turkey the opportunity to back off the S-400. The president laid a number of options down for it, and President Erdogan needs to make a choice.”
The Lockheed Martin Corp. F-35 is a next-generation stealth fighter produced for the U.S. and key international allies. Turkey has been a significant contributor to the production of the fighter and was expected to purchase about 100 of the jets before it was expelled from the F-35 program this year over its purchase of the S-400.
The Russian missile defense system was designed to shoot down U.S. and allied aircraft at greater ranges and altitudes than older systems. U.S. officials are concerned that sensitive technology in the F-35 designed to evade such a system could be compromised and used to improve the Russian air defense system if Turkey, a NATO member, has both.
Risch said he personally warned Erdogan against the S-400 purchase, and told him that under U.S. law he, as the Senate Foreign Relations chairman, has to sign off on any military materials that leave the U.S.
“I’m not going to sign off on the F-35 so long as they have the S-400 missiles. I’ve been telling them that for about a year. I think they didn’t really believe us,” Risch said. “I think he just wasn’t accepting that answer, but after yesterday he clearly knows where we stand.”
Understanding the Feuds Plaguing U.S.-Turkey Alliance: QuickTake
Erdogan, however, told reporters the country cannot discard the S-400 system in favor of U.S. Patriot missiles, but said he told Trump “we’re ready to buy Patriots” as well.
Erdogan offered to set up a bilateral group to resolve the issue, which would include his spokesman Ibrahim Kalin and U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien.
Senate Armed Services Chairman Jim Inhofe separately pushed back on Erdogan’s apparent suggestion that he could have both the S-400 and the Patriot systems.
“I would want to join on anything that could be emphatically opposing what he’s suggesting,” Inhofe said in an interview. “Just, no holds barred.”
Texas Republican Ted Cruz agrees that Turkey cannot have both systems, according to his spokeswoman, Maria Jeffrey.
“Senator Cruz has said publicly and he made it very clear privately, that Turkey can have the S-400 or they can have the F-35,” Jeffrey said of the meeting with Erdogan. “That’s a nonstarter.”
Attacks on Kurdish Allies
Risch said he is much more optimistic about resolving the S-400 issue than he is about addressing Turkey’s invasion of Kurdish-held territory in Syria. He said Erdogan, in the White House meeting, showed senators a video of Kurdish terrorist attacks.
“His point, that they do suffer from terrorist attacks, is well taken,” Risch said, noting that the Turks and the Kurds have long had strained ties. “But obviously not every Kurd is a terrorist.”
Risch called talk of working out a “safe zone” and separating Kurdish and Turkish forces “a work in progress.”
Risch also said increased violence by Turkish troops in northern Syria could ramp up pressure for sanctions.
“This thing didn’t have to go much further south before there was complete breakage” of the U.S.-Turkey relationship, Risch said.
(Updates with additional lawmaker comment beginning in third paragraph)
--With assistance from Firat Kozok.
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